Friday, May 17, 2013

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Why I read it: Taking on a classic once in a while.

Summary: A boy rasied by apes discovers his true heritage and chases the woman he loves.

My Thoughts: This book may be the first romantic tragedy I ever read.

I guess that somewhere in my past, probably in my childhood, I got the notion that Tarzan and Jane were a matched pair for life. I had no idea that he lost her in the end.

But that's the end, and we'll return to those thoughts. One of the first things that struck me about this book was the timing of it all. Tarzan arrives on the literary scene in 1912, at a time when the notion of evolution was still being hotly contested. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species came out in 1859; the Scopes Monkey Trial wasn't until 1925. Burroughs saw enough similarities between man and ape that he brought the mother ape Kala together with baby Tarzan in the most intimate bond between mother and child, nursing - albeit without using that very word.

Sweeping evolution aside, we come next to the contextual struggle of race. Burroughs is constantly comparing the various races represented in the book - the black tribesmen, the whites (pirates, French sailors, etc.), the ape tribes, and more. Tarzan tries to parse out just who is above whom at all times, and mostly the black peoples lose out. Keep in mind Burroughs was writing in 1912, and the world had a lot of growing pains to go through before the notion of equality for all was truly entertained. Even Esmerelda, the mistress of Jane Porter, is there solely for comic relief in the way that actor Stepin Fetchit was in all his movies.

And so we chase toward the finish of the tale, and Tarzan transforms. He learns his true identity thanks to the work of French naval officer Paul D'Arnot and a fingerprint expert with the police department in Paris, and a clue from the father of Jane Porter. He chases Jane all the way to Wisconsin and stands on the brink of pure happiness, only to find that she has been betrothed to another - his own cousin - and that with one word he could change everything. Knowing now that he is Lord Greystoke, he can take all of Wiliam Clayton's money and castles, and perhaps even Jane, but he still has the killer instinct in him borne in the jungle. But only he nd D'Arnot know his identity, and when asked who he really is, he silently disclaims his own heritage, and claims descendancy from Kala. He assures Jane's happiness, even if it means forging his own sorrow.

And so it must be, if we are ever to have a sequel. And there were two dozen, so it was certainly the right decision for Burroughs. I feel that the novel could have stood alone, that a sequel would simply be gratuitous in the way that today's filmmakers only produce blockbuster films if they come in packs of three. But, I so enjoyed Tarzan of the Apes that I'm willing to go against my own instincts and try the next in line.

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